The first year that Taylor went to summer camp, she was only eight years old. Old enough to be curious about the woods, and not old enough to be afraid of them, or of what was in them. So when she wandered off from the scout leader, chasing after a grasshopper, she didn't start to cry or freeze up when the sun finally set behind the trees and night fell all around her. Instead she ooh'd at the riot of color the sunset sparked among the canopy, and grinned at the cicadas, and tried to catch a firefly or two.
Of course, as twilight deepened into the kind of inky black that never happens in cities, Taylor couldn't help but get a little worried. It had been after lunch when she'd stepped off the trail, and now it was after dinner, and she couldn't remember where the camp was from here. But Taylor was a smart girl, everyone said so, and smart girls knew to stay in one place if they ever got lost. So she found a fallen log, gave it a cursory brush off to clear any fallen leaves, and sat down to wait. And wait. And wait.
It got later and later. If possible, it even got darker. And it got colder. Taylor pressed her hands over her mouth; smart girls don't cry. They don't.
Smart girls knew better than to get lost in the woods. Taylor Hebert cried, until her face was blotchy and hot and her head hurt and the leaves crunched behind her with something's footsteps.
The something walked around the fallen log and sat down in front of Taylor. It cocked its head, then whined until Taylor looked up and scrubbed tears away from her cheeks. There was a great big canine sitting in front of her, its fur white all over and so bright it glowed, even in the pitch black of the pre-dawn woods. Taylor sniffled, and blinked a few times before asking, "Doggy?"
The white wolf sneezed in her face. Taylor wiped off her face. "Yuck!"
The wolf gave a great doggy grin, and started licking Taylor's face, until the little girl laughed and tried to push the sloppy kisses away. She took the wolf's big blocky head in her hands and pressed a much more reasonable kiss to the wolf's forehead. The wolf chuffed, pleased.
Daybreak found Taylor waking up on a bed of leaves, with the great wolf curled around her to ward away the chill. Taylor stretched, and frowned at the grumbling of her stomach, but remembered to give the wolf a pet on the head, right between the curves of the red markings now visible in the sunlight. She rubbed the wolf's ears for good measure, too. "G'morning."
The wolf yawned, giving Taylor a close view of its very impressive teeth, and then licked her face before the girl could pull away. Taylor snorted and wiped drool off her nose. The wolf chuffed again, a sound like laughter, before it stood up and shook out its coat, sending bits of fallen leaves flying. Taylor made an 'ack!' noise and flailed, trying to keep the leaf-bits out of her own hair, and the wolf took advantage of her distraction to grasp her in its teeth by her overalls and toss the little girl up onto its back. Then they were off, the wolf's paws barely seeming to touch the ground as they ran, faster and faster, until Taylor could hear the distant voices and noises of the camp she was supposed to be at. The wolf stopped just before the treeline, and waiting for Taylor to slide down off its back, breathless and grinning.
The wolf grinned its doggy grin, and gave the girl a light headbutt, prodding her towards the camp. But Taylor dug in her heels, and dug through her pockets, instead. The wolf sat down again, and watched until Taylor withdrew a colorful strand of plastic beads and held the trinket out, triumphant. The wolf cocked its head.
"Here, doggy! We made friendship bracelets. An' we're friends now! So, take it!" After a pause, the wolf thumped its tail on the ground, and gently took the bracelet in its teeth. Taylor grinned. The beams of sunlight breaking through the tree canopy brightened.
"Yeah! Friends forever!"
* * *
As time went by, Taylor decorated her room with drawings. Cheery scribbles at first, eventually making way for coherent lines and recognizable forms. Taylor's mom bought her a pair of How-To books for drawing and painting, and a brand-new set of watercolors. Talents are to be nurtured, after all. Taylor read the books eagerly, but kept the paints untouched out of a sense of reverence. They were to be savored, not used on careless doodles.
The next week, Taylor's mom went out one day and didn't come home.
The week after that, when the silence in the house became too deafening, Taylor packed the paints, her sketchbook, her Alexandria doll, and a few clothes into a backpack, alongside a sandwich carefully sealed in a baggie. The back door wasn't locked, and her dad was asleep on the couch, one hand still loosely clasped around a bottle. Taylor closed the door behind her as hard as she could, but he didn't wake up. The night air was warm and still. Taylor walked.
There was a playground not too far away. She'd gone there a lot when she was little, her and Emma, and it was a little overgrown now but the swings still worked, and that was what's important, right? Taylor walked until she reached the park, then she set her backpack down and climbed into one of the swings. She kicked her feet, listless.
She should just go see Emma again. Emma's mom would probably be making pancakes tomorrow morning, and they could watch a movie or watch Zoe play one of her games, or...
Taylor didn't want to go see Emma. She didn't want pancakes, or bright lights and noise and Mrs. Barnes' pitying gaze. She wanted her mom.
A cold, wet noise touched her wrist. Taylor gave a startled shriek and toppled off the swing. The white wolf padded into her view from where she lay on the ground. It cocked its head and made a 'hrrng?' sound.
"Wh-- hey! You're-- I remember you!" Taylor smiled, and sat up so she could reach the wolf's head and ears. The wolf's tongue flopped out in a happy grin as she rubbed the wolf's ears. And it--she, actually-- was a wolf, not a dog, like in her memory. She'd studied pictures of dogs and canines for her sketches. Her best one was taped above her bed. Taylor told the wolf so, and she licked the girl's hand in response. "Hehehe. Good to see you, Doggy. What are you doing out of the woods?"
The wolf thumped her tail on the ground, then padded over to the weed-strewn play area. Taylor watched the wolf climb up the wide-set stairs up into the plastic playground, then crawl on her belly into the slide tunnel. The tunnel produced a great echoing Wooooo~! as the wolf slid down it and shot out the opening at the bottom. Taylor goggled, and the wolf happily ran up the stairs to do it again. Another Woooo~!, and a flying canine. The wolf circled back to the stairs, then turned her head and barked.
Taylor grinned, and wiped at her eyes, and ran over to play too.
Hours later, dawn was painting the sky in rose and gold and purple, and Taylor dug out her sandwich. She tore it in half, and offered some to the wolf, who wagged her tail and--well--wolfed it down. Taylor giggled.
"...thanks, Doggy. I-- I needed that." The wolf cocked her head, and made a curious noise. Taylor's smile faded. "My mom... she died. Last week. Dad doesn't talk anymore, and I-- I don't know what to do."
The wolf made a sort of 'hmm' noise. After a few moments, she started snuffling at Taylor's backpack, and kept it up after Taylor protested that she didn't have any more sandwiches. The wolf tugged at the drawstring, then pawed at the pink canvas until the bag tipped over and spilled its contents. She pawed at the box of watercolors.
"What? C'mon, don't do that-- I was saving those!" The wolf cocked her head, and whined. "Well... not really for anything specific, no. But... that's the last thing Mom got me. I don't want to waste it." The wolf sneezed.
"What? You think I should use them anyway?" A happy grin. Taylor wasn't quite convinced. She eyed the long box of colors, then her sketchbook. Mom had bought those so she would use them... so maybe not using them was the real waste. Mom wouldn't want that. Mom wouldn't want a lot of things that were happening, right now. But even so, this would be the first time they were used-- it had to be more than a doodle. Taylor's fingers crept over the box, and found the catch. "I don't think it'll be a good painting, Doggy."
The wolf chuffed, and nudged her hand closer to the paints.
* * *
Daniel Hebert woke up late, his head pounding, and his mouth scuzzy. He hauled himself off the couch and trudged to the kitchen, filling a glass of water with mindless, habitual proficiency. He turned to the freezer above the fridge for an ice cube. Before he reached it, cold drenched his skin and prickled along the hairs on his arms. He scrubbed sleep from his eyes.
On the fridge was a sheet of thick paper, taped to the appliance and so new it was still damp. Simple, minimalist even, just a few broad lines and cloudy expanses of color. Peach-colored skin, a halo of black curls, two circles for glasses... Daniel groped for a chair, missed, and fell to the floor instead. The watercolor portrait of his wife stared back at him, when his head cleared again.
He thought there'd been--
He shook his head. It didn't matter right now. Daniel Hebert stood up.